You hear it time and time again: “Restrictor plate racing is the great equalizer.” No longer is the victor the driver with the best car control, strongest engine or has the most time in the wind tunnel. Smaller, less-funded teams are able to keep pace and position themselves to “steal” a win from the larger multi-car organizations.
In a season riddled with exciting racing and finishes, Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway featured two-, three- and even four-wide racing throughout the day with few “lulls” in the excitement. With that kind of racing the expectation is that the “big one” is inevitable; that the piece that holds a pack of 43 cars together at speeds of more than 180 mph mere inches from each other lap after lap will finally break. Regretfully, that piece did break Sunday afternoon, and not just once. Two times the yellow flag flew for accidents involving more than eight cars. And these accidents were caused by drivers with less than stellar resumes and without sponsors on their quarter-panels, correct? Wrong-o!
The two culprits, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, combine for six championships, 340 top-10 finishes and seven restrictor plate victories. Although Keselowski was six laps down, he was running in the top 10 at the time of his crash. In the middle of a three-wide situation, the back end simply stepped out from under him, collecting Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and others in the process. So what went wrong? He simply spun out, and he admitted it. “I just spun out in front of the whole field,” said Keselowski. “I don’t know why, if I just busted my butt on my own or lost a tire, but I feel bad for everyone that got torn up.”
Much the same came from the five-time champion Jimmie Johnson in almost the same spot on the racetrack. While running in the top 10, on the outside line, Johnson lost the rear end without contact from another driver. The spin sent him into Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and eventually took out Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Austin Dillon and others. When asked about the incident, Johnson’s response was eerily similar to Keselowski. “…I don’t know what happened when I spun out. The car just got real loose going into Turn 3 and turned around and collected a bunch of guys, unfortunately.” The spin not only surprised Jimmie but his crew chief, Chad Knaus, as well. Chad was heard over the radio telling Jimmie that he screwed (I’ll use the G-rated version) up a perfectly good race car today.
So what did we learn from Sunday’s race? Deny it all you want, but restrictor plate racing does equalize the field. An incident can occur at any time, and a driver isn’t safe, no matter the years of experience or number of wins. You can blame the aero package or the tires if you want. Restrictor place racing requires a skill like no other. Drivers are the first to place all the success on the “guys at the shop.” But in the end, if a driver can’t keep the nose of the car pointed in the right direction, success at Daytona and Talladega will be hard to come by.